When the Powerhouse Fails: Mitochondria Dysfunction

Written by Dr. Alexis Chesney for the Brattleboro Reformer November 7, 2014.

What are Mitochondria and what do they do?


Mitochondria are the powerhouse of our cells. These unique organelles are located within each cell of the human body. Our heart, liver, pancreas, muscles, and brain are dependent on mitochondria for our most basic body functions. Mitochondria use the sugars we extract from our food to create ATP (adenosine triphosphate)--which is the energy molecule of our body--via the Kreb's cycle and electron transport chain. ATP is transported out of the cell to serve as energy for the rest of the body. Mitochondria have two membranes and contain their own DNA. Energy production in the mitochondria occurs within its inner membrane.

What are possible causes?

In order to have healthy mitochondria, a diet of healthy fats, carbohydrates, proteins, B vitamins, and magnesium is needed. Healthy mitochondria contribute to our feeling of being alert, energetic, and focused.

  • If our diet is inadequate, our mitochondria may not function well and we may feel more fatigued. Excessive sugar intake specifically affects the mitochondria.
  • Chronic illness can stress the mitochondria so that even with a healthy diet, a person with a chronic disease may not have sufficient nutrients for satisfactory energy production.
  • High blood pressure, diabetes, abnormal blood sugar, abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol can cause oxidative stress and therefore mitochondrial damage.
  • Genetic mitochondrial disease can cause neurological and/or musculoskeletal symptoms.
  • Aging, medications, and toxins also create oxidative stress (caused by free radicals) which damages the mitochondrial cell membranes.
  • Even the mitochondria themselves, while making ATP, release self-harming free radicals.
  • When mitochondria are unhealthy, a cascade of signals occurs within the immune system that leads to symptoms such as fatigue, pain, headaches, mood changes, brain fog, tingling, and numbness. Since certain chronic illnesses cause these same symptoms, it can be important in a differential diagnosis to investigate the role of mitochondrial function in seeking to understand a symptom picture.

    What keeps mitochondria healthy?

    Not overeating, decreasing sugar intake and increasing exercise will decrease mitochondrial damage.

    Nutritional therapy has been shown to improve mitochondrial function and decrease symptoms like fatigue, pain, headaches, mood, brain fog, tingling, and numbness.

    Phosphatidylcholine, found in eggs, fish and meat, are a main ingredient within the inner mitochondrial membrane structure. Carnitine, also found in meat, transports fats into the mitochondria. CoQ10, NADH, and magnesium provide support to the electron transport chain inside of the mitochondria. Alpha-lipoic acid, found in vegetables and meat, assists in mitochondria regeneration. Resveratrol, from berries, grapes and Japanese knotweed, increases mitochondrial production.

    The flavonoid, quercetin, found in fruits and vegetables, is important for mitochondrial function. Including foods or supplements that contain these nutrients in a healthy dietary regimen provides excellent support for the mitochondria.

    Mitochondrial support is an important adjunctive to improve the outcome of traditional medical treatment of chronic medical conditions. A focused intervention can be effective in treating underlying mitochondrial damage and improving how we feel.

    Dr. Alexis Chesney is a Naturopathic Physician and Acupuncturist specializing in Lyme disease. Dr. Chesney works with patients of all ages on chronic disease, general wellness, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling. For more information, contact Sojourns Community Health Clinic at 802-722-4023; 4923 U.S. Route 5, Westminster, VT.

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(802) 722-4023


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